pop queen grapples with her legacy

Because Madonna has built her visionary, incredibly influential career on constantly pushing forward, the idea of a ‘greatest hits’ tour always seemed like anathema to her. Or, as she might put it, “reductive”. But, when ‘The Celebration Tour’ was announced in January, it was billed as a “Madonna’s artistic journey through four decades… highlighting her unmatched catalogue of music from the past 40-plus years”.

On the tour’s opening night at London’s The O2 – the first of six sold-out shows at the venue – Madonna reels off era-defining hits from the start. ‘Into The Groove’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Like A Prayer’ all arrive in the show’s first section, which is driven by a rich autobiographical narrative that dissipates later on. It’s most powerful of all when Madonna dedicates ‘Live To Tell’ to “all the bright lights we lost to AIDS” – a disease she advocated for at its nadir.

While Madonna ascends to the rafters on a flying platform, retracting video screens unfurl to show the faces of people claimed by the disease, including her former roommate Martin Burgoyne, artist friend Keith Haring, and dance teacher Christopher Flynn. It’s a profoundly moving tribute that underlines her many decades as an LGBTQ+ ally.

Madonna and her backing dancers perform on The Celebration Tour
Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

Early on, there’s also a technical glitch that halts the show for nearly 10 minutes. Madonna salvages it by sparring with RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob the Drag Queen, her witty mistress of ceremonies, and telling an anecdote about trading “blowjobs for showers” during her days as an impoverished dancer. The delay comes right after Madonna has strapped on her Rickenbacker for ‘Burning Up’ – a song she tells us she played at New York punk club CBGBs – so in a strange way, it underlines her scrappy roots.

After this, the show continues in heart-racingly exciting style with a series of spectacular set-pieces referencing iconic highlights from Madonna’s reign – ‘Vogue’ is presented as a raucous ballroom extravaganza; the Bjork-penned ‘Bedtime Story’ leads into ‘Ray Of Light’, spotlighting her ’90s electronica era. Coupled with a fiendishly detailed sound mix from producer Stuart Price, which fills each intro and segue with snippets of Madgebangers that didn’t make the setlist, there is a huge amount to take in. It’s a reminder that Madonna’s career is a multifaceted entity that can’t be carved up into easy pieces.

In a reflective moment, Madonna addresses the severity of the “serious bacterial infection” that hospitalised her in June, forcing this tour’s original start date to be postponed. “I forgot five days of my life, or my death,” she tells the hushed crowd. “I don’t really know where I was, but the angels were protecting me. And if you want to know my secret and how I survived, I thought: ‘I’ve got to be there for my children. I have to survive for them.’” In a classic bit of Madonna bullishness, she then sings Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.

By the end of the show, five of the singer’s children have joined her on stage. Watching Madonna croon her anguished 1993 ballad ‘Bad Girl’ (“Bad girl, drunk by six / Kissing some kind stranger’s lips”) accompanied by her daughter Mercy James on piano is poignant in a way only Madonna could have dreamed up. When she performs the 2003 deep cut ‘Mother And Father’ – a song about the seismic impact of her mother’s death when she was five – it’s made even more moving by the presence of her son David Banda. He plays acoustic guitar alongside an image of his birth mother, Marita, who died shortly after he was born.

Madonna and her son David Banda on stage in London
Madonna performing live. Credit: Mazur/WireImage for Live Nation

This being a Madonna show, there’s also the odd questionable gesture. An interlude mash-up of her own ‘Like A Virgin’ and Michael Jackson‘s ‘Billie Jean’ is presumably conceived as a well-meaning nod to their ’80s imperial phases – the Queen and King of Pop, together at last. Sadly, it feels misguided in light of Jackson’s sullied reputation and looks a bit cheap with cartoons of the two stars dancing in silhouette. It’s the only dud visual in an otherwise stunning show.

Ultimately, ‘The Celebration Tour’ feels like watching Madonna grapple with her life and legacy in real time: from motherless child to mother of six, punky hustler to pop icon, provocative upstart to grande dame both cherished and chastised. “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done is to stick around,” she tells us in an audio except from her 2016 Billboard Women in Music speech.

The whole thing is a thrilling reminder that Madonna isn’t just a pop star, but also a cultural force who genuinely changed the world by chafing against what society expects from women in the public eye. That’s something worth celebrating in the dazzling, dynamic and at times slightly discombobulating way she presents it here. Really, you wouldn’t have her any other way.

Madonna played:

‘Nothing Really Matters’
‘Into The Groove’
‘Burning Up’
‘Open Your Heart’
‘Live To Tell’
‘Like A Prayer’
‘Justify My Love’
‘Hung Up’
‘Bad Girl’
‘Human Nature’
‘Crazy For You’
‘Die Another Day’
‘Don’t Tell Me’
‘Mother And Father’
‘Little Star’
‘I Will Survive’
‘La Isla Bonita’
‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’
‘Bedtime Story’
‘Ray Of Light’
‘Bitch I’m Madonna’

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